Sparky wisdom?

I’ve seen three lots of references to electricity this week. One, a debate about floodlighting churches though the night. Two, Ed Milband decided that electricity prices should be fixed for end consumers. Three, an organisation is lobbying the Church of England to remove investments from fossil fuels.

I believe that burning fossil fuels (carbon based – coal and gas) is a major contributor to human induced climate change. I know that fossil fuels are a finite resource. As Christians, we are encouraged to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. So to my mind, taking a finite resource and using it inefficiently, in a way which causes long term damage, is a bit stupid. Yes, I was part of an industry that did that. But I was also part of an industry which worked hard to use resources efficiently. So, my thoughts on each bit in turn….


The argument for floodlighting churches goes something along the lines of “It makes them stand out in the local environment, it means people might notice them, it makes them shine like the light of Christ”. These things may or may not be true. But if a person wants to find a church, they don’t need it to be floodlit. And if they know they want a church, they probably want the people inside it, not the building. And the reason they know they want a church is because they will have met someone who helped them understand that churches are important. Bluntly, in their situation, they don’t want or need bricks and mortar, they need humans who help them connect with or articulate God. Churches are people, not buildings. If I want to walk into a mosque, I’ll find one. If I want a football stadium, I’ll find it. Floodlighting it helps no-one. We might just as well burn £10 notes on the church roof, and raise sea levels a millimetre. Switch off the flood lights. They are a waste of valuable resources.

Price fixing. What a wonderful idea, it will stop the nasty companies ripping off consumers. Bear with me while I explain a bit about the electricity industry. Generators make electricity, using fuel to turn turbines. Some use wind, some use water to turn turbines. Most use gas, or nuclear reactions, or oil or coal to make steam to turn turbines. The electricity is transmitted on high voltage lines (a bit like motorways and A roads) owned by the National Grid, then distributed at lower voltages (more like B roads and streets or lanes) owned by distribution companies. Suppliers buy electricity from generators, and pay  for its transmission and distribution. They pass all of these costs on to the end consumer.

That’s great until we take into account some characteristics of electricity. Just as you can only fit so much traffic down a road, so you can only send so much electricity down a wire. Wind turbines tend to be situated a long way away from towns – and it is possible for any kind of generator to be paid not to generate because there is too much electricity generation in that area. The alternative is to invest in more wires (the equivalent of building more roads or widening existing ones). As the location of generation changes, more investment in transmission is required.

People want cleaner electricity. This means investment in R&D is needed. So there’s some more money on the bill. Gas tends to produce steam more efficiently than coal, and is a bit cleaner…so EU legislation has mandated the closure of many coal fired power stations. New ones have to be built….ah, yes, so that’s more money. The years of bills based pretty much on short run marginal costs are over. North Sea Gas is gone, so we are now buying gas on the world market – not conducive to price stability. As consumers, we don’t much like nuclear, because when it goes wrong it goes very wrong indeed. (I know enough about building safety cases for nukes to know that I’m not blogging about it, because I’m not an expert. But I’d happily live next to a nuclear power station.) Some of us like wind, always renewable. Yes, but not predictable, the technology to provide frequency and voltage control has taken a while….and it is fact that the coldest days tend to have still air. Wind is part of the solution, not the solution. We need a decent energy mix.

Co-ordinating investment and R&D is a huge job. The regulator has concentrated on making sure that the “market” is working. They use liquidity measures such as monitoring  how many times each unit of electricity is bought and sold before it is actually delivered. Each transaction ideally makes a small profit….more money on the bill.

So the second question – price caps? No. Either let the market work, and live with the consequences, or renationalise the whole industry and co-ordinate the investment. The investment that we won’t be able to afford because of a recession. Or alternatively, get a decent, all embracing, stable energy policy, so that it is easy to persuade people to invest here.
So having read all this (thanks), what can you do? Use less electricity. Switch off. Be frugal. Think before you charge up appliances, before you boil full kettles. It really does make a difference. And encourage investment – so that renewables can be used, so that we can harness rivers, the tides, waves, all the renewable bits.

The third question – get the church to disinvest in fossil fuels? No, I disagree. The biggest companies in the UK have a mix of generation types that they own. If the church disinvests, and if other companies are encouraged to disinvest, the industry will collapse. Banks going bust creates misery. Electricity companies going bust creates darkness and coldness. If a company cannot pay its fuel bill, and cannot keep its credit lines open, it will not generate. We don’t have sufficient generation capacity to allow this to happen. If the commercial systems break down in an uncontrolled way, then the lights will go out. I was involved in buying bits of TXU when they went bust in 2002, and our two major tasks were to keep customers supplied, and keep generators generating. I know the church doesn’t own much, but I presume that as church, we are setting an example to others, and encouraging them to do likewise? So lobby by all means. Shout from the roof tops about the disgrace of burning irreplaceable fuels. In fact, buy some shares. invest. Get a voice inside the companies, and demand more research into better solutions. It will cost, but it won’t cost the earth.


8 responses to “Sparky wisdom?

  1. At last, Christians talking about something to do with ecology. Perhaps it is more common in the UK these days, but over here mentioning this sort of thing results in blank looks and shuffling feet…

    1: I’m with you on floodlit buildings. It does seem a rather sill way to waste energy.

    2:I guess the German industry is a bit different to the UK. Here we have lots of smaller companies as well as bigger ones. This means that we, for example get out power from a small company generating with wind and hydro in south Germany, supplying our house in south Germany. This is also easier because there’s much less opposition to wind and we have huge rivers with smaller generators every few kilometres, but it shows it can happen.

    Nuclear is a real hot potato, (Full doisclosure: I have a Japanese family involved in the campaigns around nuclear power)

    What seems to be forgotten is that Nuclear requires massive government loans to make a power station, and that power stations have a limited life. After all the massive construction is complete, a reactor works for about forty years, then up to a hundred years to clean up the site afterwards, which in part means “move the really nasty stuff somewhere else and hope it doesn’t do any more damage”. Apart from this, Uranium is a finite fuel as well, and there is some evidence it has peaked. A lot of what we are running in reactors at the moment is leftovers from nuclear weapons decomissioned after the cold war. These stockpiles are also finite.

    Finally, if the church stops investing in fossil fuels, that money doesn’t vanish does it? Why can’t the church pull out of Fossil fuels and invest in renewables R&D? In fact, you could argue that by continuing to invest in fossil fuels the church is helping to starve renewable development of investment, and therefore speeding up the day when the fossil based energy grid collapses and the lights go out.

    I agree with the conclusion though: let’s simply use less energy, watch what we do use and live a simpler way. If anything that would be the way to show people in the ecology movement that we are serious about looking after God’s creation: that we are prepared to chang the way we live to make it happen.

    • Hi Andy, thanks for your comment. Yes, ecology is finally starting to be talked about in the UK among Christians, which is mainly why I wrote this post. I’m aware that I may be “too close” to a flawed industry to speak with any degree of detachment, but I am starting to see too much that is spoken by those who know comparatively little – so the least I can do is try to bridge some of the divide!

      Your comments about Germany and the approach to renewables are useful – I suspect they are better commercially structured than the UK, although they also have the technical benefit of being part of a much larger interconnected European system.

      You are quite right in what you say about nuclear. It is hugely expensive and no commercial company would invest without government backing – and whether or not nuclear power is a “good” thing is another area where as a fool, I intend to avoid rushing in.

      My main problem with disinvesting in fossil fuel in the UK is that most large generating companies run a mix. And surely the point of church disinvesting would be to set an example for others to follow? I am all for the planned replacement of fossil fuelled power stations – but it needs to be planned, not the result of the equivalent of the banking sector collapse of 2008.

  2. Learnt lots from this Claire, thanks … quite “proud” that my bills have been renegotiated to go down this year 🙂 Making good use of turning switches off, wrapping up in blankets where possible, using those auto-switch off e-cables 🙂

  3. Just for fun.
    Does anyone know why homes aren’t run on 12volts produced totally independently ??

    • Because it’s more efficient to make electricity in bulk and transmit it at high voltage. Which matters if you are using non-renewable fuels to make it. It also gives a more stable power supply because of large system inertia, whereas local fluctuations are noticeable on LV systems. And because power (W) = Voltage * Current (with a power factor I won’t bore you with lobbed in too) high power at low voltage means high currents – and it’s the currents that kill you. If all you are doing is running light bulbs it should be fine (ish).

      • Yes and No
        It is more efficient to make electricity in bulk also energy providers have a captive client.
        I know the maths and understand the principles and the need to produce high voltage to send any distance.
        My argument is that a single household does not NEED to receive 240 volts A.C. 😉

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